PREVIEWS: Adams celebration, Pacific Symphony, L.A. Phil kick off January programs

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

In addition to Los Angeles Chamber Chorus’ “Life Every Voice” festival (LINK), which begins Jan. 14, and two previously noted Los Angeles Philharmonic programs (LINK), two other noteworthy events are worth mentioning as I get back into my biweekly column routine for 2017.

Composer John Adams turns age 70 on Feb. 14 and, as has been noted in other columns and Blog posts, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is paying tribute to its Creative Chair throughout the current season. However, it’s not the only organization honoring Adams.

The Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge has a mini-festival that kicks off on Jan. 14. Entitled “American Berserk” and also presented by Jacaranda Music, the Santa Monica-based contemporary music organization, this concert ends with three Adams pieces: American Berserk, a short piano piece; John’s Book of Alleged Dances, originally written for the Kronos Quartet; and Grand Pianola Music, one of Adams’ best-known works.

The concert also includes music by Louis Marie Gottschalk, Scott Joplin, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Theolonius Monk and Colon Noncarrow.

Performers will include Christopher Taylor, piano; the Lyris Quartet with four dancers; the Jacaranda Chamber Orchestra (Mark Alan Hilt, conductor) with Gloria Cheng and Taylor pianos; Holly Sedillos, soprano; Zanaida Robles, soprano; and Kristen Toedtman, alto.

Other VPAC programs during the Adams celebration will take place on Feb. 3 and 15. Information:


Music Director Carl St.Clair will lead the Pacific Symphony on Jan. 12, 13 and 14 at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa. The program will pair Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with 25-year-old Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang as soloist. On Jan. 15 the program is solely the Prokofiev symphony. Information:

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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CLASS ACT: New, old traditions highlight holiday music season

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Tradition permeates every facet of holiday celebrations, especially music. One has only to hear a measure of Silent Night or Jingle Bells to instantly recognize the song and, indeed, to sing it.

However, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic takes the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage on Dec. 16 and 18, they will be performing a work that is not a tradition … at least, not yet. When John Adams’ El Nino debuted in 2000, the composer (and others) hoped that this so-called “nativity oratorio” would become a Christmas season staple, a 20th century version of Handel’s famed work, Messiah.

One reason that might prevent such an acceptance is the forces required to perform Adams’ 90-minute work. In addition to a full orchestra — with a percussion section that includes a glockenspiel, triangles, gong, almglocken, guiro, maracas, crotales, high cowbells, temple block, tam-tam, chimes, claves and two temple bowls, along with guitars, harp, piano and a sampler — the work is scored for chorus (in this case, the Los Angeles Master Chorale), children’s choir (the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus), and six vocal soloists, including three counter tenors.

Adams himself will be conducting the two L.A. performances and two of the counter tenors, Daniel Bubeck and Brian Cummings, sang in the world premiere in Paris. The performances will be part of the L.A. Phil’s season-long celebration of the composer’s 70th birthday (which will actually take place on Feb. 15).

For those who prefer a traditional telling of the nativity story, the Phil will intersperse El Nino with performances of Handel’s Messiah on Dec. 15 and 17. Noted French-Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie will lead the LAPO, his own chorus, La Chapelle de Quebec, and four soloists.


There will be plenty of other Messiah performances throughout the month. Among them will be Julian Wachner leading the Choir of Trinity Wall St. Church in New York City and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra on Dec. 7 at Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge. Information:

Another performance will come from the Pasadena Master Chorale, led by Jeffrey Bernstein, performing on Dec. 11 at First Congregational Church, Pasadena. Information:

Among the churches offering Christmas programs this year will be La Canada Presbyterian Church, on Dec. 18. The centerpiece of the program will be a performance of “Silent Night, Holy Night,” a piece commemorating the 1914 Christmas truce during World War I. Tony award- and Emmy-award winning actor Courtney B. Vance will narrate the work. Information:

(c) Copyright 2016, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: There’s more to orchestras than the L.A. Phil

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Somewhat overshadowed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s opening this week (LINK) are a handful of other openings that should be noted.

The Long Beach Symphony opens its 80th anniversary season Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Long Beach’s Terrace Theatre. Richard Guzman’s preview article on our papers’ Web site is HERE.

The orchestra’s board announced today that it has extended Kelly Ruggirello’s contract as the LBSO executive director through the 2017. Ruggirello took over the post 18 months ago and this announcement means, presumably, that she will be leading the orchestra through its music director transition. Enrique Arturo Diemecke resigned abruptly last season after 13 years as the LBSO’s music director.

Concert information:

The London Philharmonic Orchestra will make a stop at California State Northridge’s Valley Performing Arts Center on Oct. 10 at 8 p.m. Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski will lead the program of Dvorak’s The Noonday Witch, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathetique”) and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist. Incidentally, the LPO announced yesterday that Jurowski’s contract has been extended through at least 2018 (LINK).


The following day, the LPO moves down the 405 Freeway to the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa when it opens the Philharmonic Society of Orange County’s 2014-2015 season on Oct. 11 at 8 p.m. with the same program and performers as at VPAC. Information:

If you’re so inclined, you can comparison performances of the concerto because Behzod Abduraimov will be the soloist when the Los Angeles Philharmonic pairs Prokofiev’s third concerto with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in a “Casual Friday” concert on Oct. 17. Basque conductor Juanjo Mena will conduct. The concerts on Oct. 18 and 19 add Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony to the aforementioned two. Information:

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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PREVIEW: Prize-winning cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan returns to Southern California at VPAC concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News

Estonian National Symphony; Neeme Järvi, conductor
Friday at 8 p.m. • Valley Performing Arts Center (Cal State Northridge)
Pärt: Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B; Narek Hakhnazaryan, soloist.
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5
Remaining tickets: $62-$77.50

narek-hakhnazaryanNearly three years ago — on Jan. 22, 2011 — the Pasadena Symphony concert at Ambassador Auditorium featured a virtually unknown (locally, at least) Armenian-born cellist named Narek Hakhnazaryan, who would go on to win the gold medal in the 14th Tchaikovsky International Competition the following June. (A link to my story about his win is HERE).

Hakhnazaryan, now age 24, returns to the Southland not via any of our local ensembles but with the Estonian National Symphony, which appears Friday night at CSUN’s Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge. His vehicle will be the same as he played in Pasadena — Dvorak’s Cello Concerto — so it will be interesting to see how three intervening has changed his interpretation of the most famous piece written for cello and orchestra.

The ENSO’s performance at VPAC is the second stop on a nationwide tour of 15 concerts over 18 days; just the California portion seems arduous: Thursday in Santa Barbara, Friday at VPAC, Saturday at Stanford University, Sunday in Aliso Viejo, with a day off before appearing in Ames, Iowa on Nov. 5. Later tour stops are in Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Georgia and New York, including concerts at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

The California stops will include three of the state’s newest — and highly rated — concert halls: VPAC, Bing Concert Hall at Stanford and the Sokia Performing Arts in Aliso Viejo.

Estonian native Neeme Järvi, the orchestra’s artistic director and patriarch of a well-known conducting line (LINK), is leading the initial portion of the tour.

(c) Copyright 2013, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra at Valley Performing Arts Center

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily



Mariinsky Theatre
Orchestra. Valery Gergiev, conductor; Alexander Toradze, pianist

Stravinsky: Firebird
(1919); Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 Valley Performing Arts Center

56099-VPAC Interior 4:Web.jpg

 The Valley Performing Arts Center on the Cal State
Northridge campus fills a major cultural hole in the San Fernando Valley. It
hosted the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra of Russia last night.



With about 1.75 million residents, the San Fernando Valley —
were it to be a city — would be the fifth-largest municipality in the United
States (can you name the other four? See the answer at the bottom of this post)
and the only one of the top five without a major concert hall … until this year,
when the Valley Performing Arts Center opened on the Cal State Northridge


Apparently not everyone in the Valley has gotten the word of
the new hall’s opening; last might’s concert by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra
of Russia — one of the world’s great ensembles — didn’t fill all 1,700 seats in
what is known as the Great Hall.


Last night wasn’t the first orchestral concert at VPAC (the
China Philharmonic appeared last spring) but it certainly was a major test of
the auditorium’s acoustics, one that the Great Hall (as the main room is
called) passed with flying colors to these ears. Moreover, the hall is visually
striking inside and out (more on the hall later in this post).


The Mariinsky Orchestra and its music director, Valery
Gergiev, are in the midst of a grueling 17-concerts-in-20 days, coast-to-coast-to
coast trip that began October 4 in New Jersey, continued with three concerts to
open the season at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, then dropped down to Fairfax,
Virginia, before heading to California. In our state, they played Thursday in
Costa Mesa, last weekend (twice) in Berkeley, Monday back in Costa Mesa and
last night at VPAC. From here it’s on to Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal
and Ottawa in Canada before they return home (if they haven’t dropped dead from
exhaustion). Oh, and by the way, from Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, the group was in


Most of the tour stops are getting some combination of the
six Tchaikovsky symphonies, but last night’s concert eschewed the popular
Russian composer; instead, it played all 20th century Russian fare,
opening with Stravinsky’s 1919 suite from his ballet The Firebird.


Many people believe that the Mariinsky Orchestra (during the
Communist era it was known as the Kirov) is one of the last orchestras in the
world to retain some sort of nationalistic flavor in its playing. If that means
deep, resonant low strings and brass that manage to meld an interesting combination
of bite and mellowness, then they’re right. Last night’s performance wasn’t
always tidy but the sound was rich, the orchestra sounded better overall than I
remember from hearing it five years ago in Costa Mesa, and 2/3 of the concert
was top-notch.


One reason for the occasional untidiness is that Gergiev has
one of the most unusual conducting styles of anyone plying their craft these
days. He uses neither a podium nor a baton (but did use a score for all three
works last night). He stands on the floor and his hands are almost constantly
fluttering, so much so that it almost seems as if he’s afflicted with a tremor.
In many ways, he’s a minimalist with his gestures; there were times (e.g., in
the transition to the Infernal Dance in
The Firebird) when a more violent
gesture might have gotten a bit more bite from of his players.


Gergiev also likes to luxuriate in his orchestra’s rich
sound and his tempos can turn glacial, occasionally. That, of course, gives his
section leaders chances to spread their wings (so to speak) in The Firebird, with kudos going to the
oboe, cello, clarinet and, in particular, to the horn solo at the opening of
the Finale (the program lists individuals
by names in sections but doesn’t identify the winds, brass or percussion
section principals).


What was most impressive about The Firebird was how mellow everyone — but particularly the brass
sections — sounded in the majestic conclusion, even from a fifth-row orchestra
seat when one might have expected to be blown away. Nothing of the sort
occurred; an acid test for the hall, from my perspective.


After intermission, Gergiev and Co. closed with
Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1, which is a pretty gutsy (or foolhardy) choice
for a tour program.


Shostakovich wrote the piece in 1925 when he was 19 years
old as a graduation piece at the Leningrad Conservatory. Even for a world that
had been turned on its ear sonically by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring 12 years earlier, one wonders what faculty
members judging this precocious, 35-minute, four-movement must have thought.


From the perspective of time, we can see evidences of what
was to come from the composer, especially the first piano concerto (the piano
plays a prominent role in the symphony’s second movement). An occasional rough
patch notwithstanding, Gergiev and the orchestra played the symphony boldly and
brought out its occasionally sardonic, occasionally cheeky humor with panache.


Prior to intermission, Alexander Toradze was the soloist in
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The program bio lauds Toradze’s “unorthodox
interpretations, deeply poetic lyricism and intense emotional excitement.” To
my ears (a decidedly minority opinion, judging by the audience reaction), Toradze
bludgeoned the outer movements, displayed little, if any, poetic lyricism, and
his “intense emotional excitement” consisted of flexing his muscles before
launching into each of the many pyrotechnic sections and bouncing off of the
piano stool when he ended said portions. He made Lang Lang’s rendition in
Hollywood Bowl last summer seem positively elegant by comparison.


The orchestra’s accompaniment was the highlight of the piece
for me, although there were a couple of times when things slowed down so much
that the high strings turned squeaky in ultra-soft moments.


As noted, the audience was euphoric over the Prokofiev and The Firebird. It seemed less sure about
the Shostakovich but eventually brought forth enough enthusiasm so that Gergiev
and Co. offered a witty encore: Anatoly Lyadov’s Baba Yaga.


More on the VPAC:

56100-VPAC Exterior 4-Web.jpg

Set on the south side of the CSUN campus, the Valley
Performing Arts Center is a striking stainless steel and glass, four-story
structure surrounded on two sides by a fountain and a park in which 173 new
trees were planted (to go with 14 already in place). The outside concrete plaza
has lighted strips embedded and metal benches; the entire facility has an open,
pleasant feel especially on a balmy evening (as we had last night). The VPAC
cost $125 million and contains 166,000 square feet of space.


The inside lobbies use 6 million light beige floor tiles
that create a light, airy feel (although each of the four levels could use a
few more benches for seats). In addition to the multi-purpose main hall, the
facility has a 178-seat black box theater, 230-seat lecture hall and new
broadcast space for KCSN, the university’s public radio station.


The light feeling continues inside the Great Hall, which is
essentially a rectangle but the wooden sides gave me the feeling of sitting
inside of a Longaberger Basket — not unpleasant, just interesting. Since the
facility was built to handle all sorts of performances (upcoming events include
the New York City Ballet, CSUN Opera’s Cosi
Fan Tutte,
and The King’s Singers — links to all three HERE), the stage has
side and back walls and no rear seats, such as you find at Walt Disney Concert


The whole facility is a great addition to the Valley scene.
One hopes more people — including students — will learn about it in the months
to come.




Quiz answer: the top five cities by population are New
York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston (which are larger than the San Fernando
Valley) and Philadelphia — No. 5 on the list — which is smaller than the SFV.
If the Valley were subtracted from Los Angeles, L.A. would drop to third, just
above Houston.

The printed program included not a word about the new

Last night marked the third of at least four performances
of the Prokofiev third concerto that we will have heard or will be hearing
locally within a four-month period, beginning with Lang Lang to open the Bowl’s
classical season in July. Xiayin Wang played the piece with the St. Petersburg
Symphony earlier this month at the new Soka Performing Arts in Orange County
and Yuja Wang will be the soloist when James Conlon and the Los Angeles
Philharmonic perform the concerto at Walt Disney Concert Hall Nov. 4, 5 and 6



(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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